The Cable

U.S. embassies in Arab world abusing foreign workers

Contractors working for U.S. embassies throughout the Arab world have been abusing foreign workers through unsanitary living conditions, coercive hiring practices, and a host of other indignities, according to a new State Department report released Monday.

The State Department's Office of the Inspector General looked into six contracts at the U.S. embassies in Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates and at two consulates general in Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. It found what it referred to as indicators of coercion (confiscation of documents at the work destination), indicators of exploitation (bad living conditions and payment issues), and indicators of abuse of vulnerability (absence of language education and general abuse of a lack of information).

The six contracts examined -- for the employment of janitors, gardeners, and guards at these diplomatic posts -- totaled about $18 million.

"More than 70 percent of foreign contract workers live in overcrowded, unsafe, or unsanitary conditions, particularly in Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E.," the report stated. "In Riyadh, the embassy's 19 gardeners share a dilapidated apartment building with numerous fire and safety hazards."

Janitors in Abu Dhabi get an average of 24 square feet of living space. (By way of comparison, federal prisoners in the U.S. typically get between 45 and 60 square feet.) In Abu Dhabi, 8 to 10 workers bunk in a 12 by 18-foot room; there are only 15 to 20 bathrooms in a camp there that houses over 450 people. According to the report, the contractor in charge of those workers led the OIG investigators on a wild goose chase, first taking them to a building that was not actually where the workers lived.

What's more, workers of different nationalities often received different wages for doing the same jobs. For example, a Bangladeshi janitor at the U.S. embassy in Riyadh gets paid $4.44 a day. A worker of Indian origin doing the same job makes double, $8.89 a day, the report found. At the U.A.E. embassy, most guards make $22.71 a day, equal to the minimum wage. But the Ethiopian guards there make only $13.62 per day, well below the legal minimum.

Workers at the U.S. embassy in Kuwait weren't aware they are entitled to two weeks of vacation per year, leading one employee to work eight straight years without taking any time off whatsoever.

The report said there was no "severe" abuse, defined as conduct that clearly violates the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, which would include sex trafficking or illicit activities related to involuntary servitude, debt bondage, or slavery. But since there's no clear monitoring system for trafficking violations, the OIG ultimately couldn't say if trafficking violations were occurring.

Seventy-seven percent of workers interviewed said they had to pay a recruitment fee to get their jobs at the embassies and over 50 percent of those said their fee was greater than six months salary. Every contractor examined by the OIG confiscated the passports of their workers. Inappropriate garnishing of workers' wages was rampant, and most workers were forced to seek extra, often-illegal second jobs to supplement their salaries.

The OIG set forth seven recommendations for better protecting contract workers. These include the suggestion that embassies discuss local labor laws with contractors, monitor compliance and even require certification of contractors, and require that contractors explain labor laws to their workers. It also recommended that the State Department's Bureau of Administration should increase its training on the issue.

Most of the embassies investigated agreed with the OIG's report, but the Bureau of Administration's Office of the Procurement Executive (A/OPE) disagreed with all seven of the OIG's recommendations. The U.S. embassy in Riyadh provided no comments on the report whatsoever.

The OIG called A/OPE's explanations for why it disagreed with the recommendations "unclear and unresponsive to the intent of the recommendations."

The Cable

The inside story on the exploding Egypt 'envoy,' Frank Wisner

Uber-diplomat Frank Wisner won't be making any public remarks on the crisis in Egypt anytime soon; the Obama administration has directed him to steer clear of the press following his command performance in Munich, where he went off the reservation of the Obama administration's policy and forced the administration to distance itself from him and his remarks.

Wisner is back in New York at his day job at Patton Boggs, the lobbying law firm where he has worked since February 2009. He had a busy week, which began Jan. 31 with being dispatched by the Obama administration to deliver a direct message to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. He reportedly delivered Obama's tough message that Mubarak must start the transition of power "now." The week ended with him telling the entire Munich Security Conference, which included Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the audience, that Mubarak must stay in power to oversee changes in government.

"I believe that President Mubarak's continued leadership is critical -- it's his chance to write his own legacy," Wisner told the conference.

The remarks were so far off of the administration's message, which at this moment is that it's not the U.S. government's place to weigh in on Mubarak's future, that Clinton was forced to clarify on the plane ride home that Wisner was a private citizen and in no way spoke on behalf of the U.S. government.

But was the State Department even aware of what Wisner was going to say in Munich? "He did not give us a heads-up," a State Department official told The Cable.

Wisner was suggested for the "envoy" assignment to talk with Mubarak by Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Bill Burns, two administration officials confirmed. Burns is the highest-ranking Foreign Service officer at State and has known Wisner for decades.

Inside the administration's policy process on Egypt, Burns is a key player, having been U.S. ambassador to Jordan and assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. He wrote a book called Economic Aid and American Policy Toward Egypt, published in 1985, just before Wisner was named ambassador to Cairo.

But Wisner's embrace of Mubarak goes even further than Burns's position. "The implication that Bill agrees with [Wisner's] public statements since [Wisner's trip to Cairo] … is just plain wrong," an administration official told The Cable.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said on Monday that the administration knew about Wisner's work for the lobbying firm Patton Boggs, which does business in Egypt, and that his long relationship with Mubarak was an asset, not a detraction.

"We're aware of his employer.… And we felt that he was uniquely positioned to have the kind of conversation that we felt needed to be done in Egypt," Crowley said.

A spokesman for Patton Boggs told the New York Times that Patton Boggs was not doing significant work on behalf of the Egyptian government and that Wisner "has no involvement and has not had any involvement in Egyptian business while at the firm."

The White House on Monday argued that Wisner dutifully completed his assigned task in Cairo, which was "to deliver a specific, one-time message to President Mubarak," National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor told The Cable.

"He is not and was not a U.S. envoy. He was not sent to negotiate. He is an individual who has a long history with President Mubarak and thus could deliver a clear message. He spoke to President Mubarak once, reported on his conversation, and then came home," Vietor said.

Nevertheless, don't expect the Obama administration to send any more one-off, high-level envoys anytime soon.

"We are completely confident in our ability to communicate directly with the government of Egypt at the White House, State Department, Pentagon and through our embassy," Vietor said.

CORRECTED: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Patton Boggs was part of the PLM Group, a lobbying entity comprising firms led by Tony Podesta, Bob Livingston, and Toby Moffet. Patton Boggs is not part of the PLM group, which has lobbied extensively on behalf of the Egyptian government.

AFP/Getty Images.